The first things I noticed when I entered the hospital room were all the tubes and the constant whirr of the fan inflating the bed. Visiting Gary, who was lying in a specialized bed, connected to a breathing tube, was part of my rounds as a chaplaincy student.
“I can’t walk, I’m connected to all these tubes, I can’t work, I can’t make love. I don’t know if I should even be alive,” were his first words to me. I locked eyes with him, and we began to talk about what it was like to be in bed all day with such serious physical problems.
In the course of the conversation, I asked Gary to rate the quality of his life from zero to 10, with zero being the worst and 10 being amazing. I was so shocked when he said that he would rate his life as a seven. How could someone in such dire straits think that the quality of his life was better even than I would rate my own on a good day? I asked him why he would have such a positive rating and he told me a story.
“Last night my trach came dislodged,” he said. “This happens sometimes. It’s painful and makes it impossible for me to talk and communicate. It was about three in the morning, and I called the nurse. She came in and was trying to fix it but did not know how to. I was attempting to show her with my eyes and my hands, and then tried to get her to call the doctor (she didn’t want to wake him up). I was still able to breathe, but it was uncomfortable, and I stayed like that for several hours until the next shift began and a new nurse was able to help me.”
I asked Gary how his story relates to having a good quality of life, and he explained, “During the whole incident, I reminded the nurse of my humanity as well as one’s own humanity and preciousness and ability to help others. This is my purpose in life. And I live out my purpose all the time. This is why I feel that my life is rated a seven.”
I was stunned. Do I know my life purpose? Do I live it out? Can I help people see their humanity? Do I even recognize my own?
Then Gary said one more thing that surprised me. “What color are your eyes?”
“Hazel,” I replied.
“Go look in a mirror,” he said. “I see so much more than coloration in your eyes.”
He did it again. He helped me see my own blessedness, my own humanity. He was living out his purpose. This encounter with Gary, many years ago, comes to mind when I wonder about the meaning of life. It also reminds me of another story — the baptism of Jesus. What happens right after he is baptized takes my breath away.
“After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:16-17)
This is what Gary taught me. It is what I saw when I looked into my eyes. I am the beloved daughter of God. I am beloved. Even when it feels as if the whole world is telling me I am worthless, even when my own inner voices cannot believe it, I am beloved.
And so are you. We are the beloved of God. This, I believe, is the central spiritual truth of our lives and one so desperately needed today. We are precious. We are human. We have great capacity for kindness, even in our suffering.
Go look in a mirror. Take a deep look into your eyes. In them is your humanity, a blessed child of God.
Sarah Hennessey is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ messy business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry and singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse.